The debate: city fire coverage

Citizens at risk

May 24, 2000|By Sheila Dixon

On May 9, Mayor Martin O'Malley informed City Council members of his intent to close seven firehouses in order to shift scarce resources to fund additional ambulance units.

I respect the rationale for the firehouse closings; indeed, we've known for some time that reducing the number of firehouses in Baltimore would be necessary.

However, I have withheld my final judgment as to the need to eliminate some of the stations targeted by the mayor. The Greater Baltimore Committee and the President's Roundtable, both professional business organizations I respect a great deal, made these recommendations to the mayor based on several factors, including age of the station, response times, actual calls and the number of stations in a given geographic area.

In addition to our concern about the formulas used by the administration to decide what stations should be closed, many of my colleagues on the City Council and I have serious questions as to the emergency response time from the secondary fire stations, the impact that these closings will have on neighborhood stability, the effect on property insurance rates and even the future plans for the shuttered firehouses themselves.

My office has also been contacted by the leadership of the firefighter's union expressing extreme frustration at having been left out of the review process.

Over the 13 years that I have served on the council, I have both witnessed and participated in several heated floor debates on similar issues that divided our council. Angry citizens on both sides of issues have packed the City Council chambers .

Public outcry and a fractured council is exactly what dissuaded Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke from closing several firehouses more than a decade ago, although they were certainly needed.

In an attempt to avoid future confrontations with the mayor over this issue, the council passed a law in 1989 that mandated the Board of Fire Commissioners to present a written, comprehensive Fire Protection Plan to the mayor and City Council every five years for review.

This plan is to detail any proposed consolidations or closing of fire stations and establish a criterion under which such action is warranted. According to this law, only after a public hearing may any changes to the original plan be implemented or revised. To my knowledge, no such plan has ever been presented to the City Council by the fire commissioners, most of whom, along with Fire Chief Herman Williams, have served under both the Schmoke and O'Malley administrations.

Since the commissioners have failed to comply with the law, the City Council must now go one step further and require all affected communities to have input on what happens to firehouses in their neighborhoods.

Today, the council's Judiciary and Policy Committee will hear a bill introduced by Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young that further requires a public forum on specific firehouse closings in the future. This law will give citizens an opportunity to demand reasons and rationale for shutting down stations in their neighborhoods and requires the administration to respond.

I am a co-sponsor of this proposed ordinance, which is modeled after similar legislation introduced by then-Councilman Martin O'Malley and passed by the council just two years ago in the midst of pending library branch closings.

Among my top priorities upon becoming the council president in December was the desire to involve and inform citizens far more extensively in policy decisions like these. To that end, the council has hosted six town hall meetings during the course of our first six months on issues ranging from public safety to housing. We join the mayor in his call for a "transparent" city government, and I strongly believe that public participation can only make it easier for us to do this.

Whenever and wherever possible, I have pledged to work in a constructive partnership with the mayor. Early successes of this collaborative effort resulted in landmark legislation addressing billboards, lead paint poisoning and comprehensive rezoning.

Yet this partnership can only succeed if citizens know that the administration is being held accountable for the decisions they are making. The process outlined in Councilman Young's bill is one more step in the right direction.

Sheila Dixon is president of the Baltimore City Council.

The Baltimore City Council will hold a public hearing at 5 p.m. today on a proposed ordinance requiring a hearing before consolidating, relocating or closing a fire company or unit, emergency medical care unit or company or truck company or unit.

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